Neil Lennon’s first season as Celtic manager is coming towards its conclusion – and what a season it has been.
Events off the park have often taken the attention away from the game of football as the combination of the SFA’s shenanigans and the sectarianism of Scottish society were both directed towards Lennon.
Put simply, no manager has ever had to face so much. And very few men would have been able to find the inner strength to cope, as Neil Lennon has done.
When Celtic appointed its seventeenth permanent manager last summer I write that I would have preferred to see a more experienced appointment made at a time when the playing squad required a massive overhaul. I also described the choice of Neil Lennon as a gamble.
Has the gamble paid off?
The most important target for Celtic every year is to win the league title. So in the starkest of terms this season has been a failure. But from the point that the new manager took over we have seen progress made.
Our overall league performance has actually been good. 29 wins from 38 matches and a haul of 92 points would have been enough to win the title in many seasons. And we had the best defensive record, conceding only 22 goals.
We have a better squad of players now than we had a year ago. New signings like Izaguirre, Kayal, Ledley, Commons, Stokes and Hooper have all been successes. And none of these players are close to reaching their peak. There is now a core of players to build on, and this summer’s task will be to trim squad numbers while adding quality.
The standard of football we have seen has, in the main, improved. With a few noticeable exceptions, Motherwell and Inverness away for example, we are now much closer to playing the Celtic way once more.
So there are positives that can be taken from this season.
Neil Lennon has made mistakes, of course. He is a young man learning his trade in a massive job, so that was always to be expected. We can look back to many of the games where points were dropped and wonder what would have been with a different formation or a different selection of personnel.
But what cannot be forgotten is the context in which Neil Lennon has been forced to work. Racist and sectarian abuse, physical attacks and death threats, even a bomb in the post. The effects of this continuous outpouring of hatred must have had a massive effect on Neil and his family.
I can’t comprehend what Neil has gone through and would not have blamed him had he decided to walk away at the end of the season for the sake of his family and his sanity.
But I did not expect Neil to leave.
Neil was always stubborn as a player. He was a winner who would do whatever it took. He never backed down to those who tried to bully him. And he hated losing with a passion.
So I was not surprised when Neil Lennon declared that he would be in charge next season. He would not want to let the bigots win by walking away. He will be doubly determined to win the title next season. And he has a commitment to the club and its supporters that translates into a tremendous will to win.
Last summer there were those who wondered if Neil Lennon was strong enough to cope with the Celtic job given his battle with depression. I hope that even they will now acknowledge the tremendous mental strength that Neil has shown. Lesser men would have crumbled under the strain.
Sunday’s final home game of the season was an opportunity for the Celtic fans to demonstrate their support for the manager. And they took the opportunity in the unique manner that only Celtic supporters can.
Neil Lennon’s appointment may have been a gamble. And we will see next season whether the foundations that have been built will lead to a pay off.
But what cannot be doubted is that Neil Lennon is a tremendously resilient and courageous man who has dealt with everything thrown at him and survived a tumultuous first season in charge.
And he will be back for a second season more determined to succeed than ever.